Rabbi Avi Shafran on Intelligent Design

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13 Responses

  1. Rivka W. says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing it with those of us who don’t get to read JO very often.

    But, “The appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even the appearance of an entirely new trait within a species have never been witnessed,” is simply untrue. In species with short life-spans (such as bacteria, fruit flies, and the like) both these things occur — both in the lab and naturally — all the time.

  2. Seth Gordon says:

    Regarding the scientific claims made by Rabbi Shafran (and, earlier, by Rabbi Menken): I refer you to the excellent Talk.Origins archive. Regarding the particular claim that nobody has ever observed a new species arise through evolution, see this article from that archive. Regarding the claim that evolution requires a series of highly unlikely events to occur, see here. Regarding the claim that the role of randomness in evolution denies any possible role for God, see here.

    As an Orthodox Jew who is convinced that evolution is the best-supported scientific theory for explaining life on this world, I don’t appreciate a rabbi who has never met me, and who demonstrates ignorance of the science he is criticizing, telling me that I actually believe in a “religion of Randomness”. If Rabbi Shafran wants to understand why so many scientists heap “anger, cynicism and derision” on the Intelligent Design movement, he should look at his own words.

  3. Boruch says:

    Interesting read, but a bit off the mark, I think.

    He couches the entire debate as one between purpose and randomness, between deism and atheism. As R’ Shafran says, “the idea of evolution has, willy-nilly, been inextricably wed to the notion of a Creator-less universe”. While plenty of atheist neo-Darwinist scientists exist, to be sure, there are also plent of evolutionary biologists who do not see it this way.

    Science, as the author says, “deals only with what can be seen or touched or measured.” This is as it should be. If he feels that public schools are teaching evolution from an atheist slant, then that is a valid criticism. But to counter it by adding even more inappropriate material to the science classroom seems like a poor solution.

    And even would this have some effect in mitigating the “dire societal danger” in public shools, do we want to wed ourselves to “G-d in the gaps” theories which could at any point leave us with egg all over our faces?

  4. 1.5 opinions says:

    Rabbi Shafran does something that I never would have expected: limits Hashem! Shocking.

    Throughout this article, he continuously pits Randomness against Hashem (and His purpose). This distinction directly sets up randomness, that is random occurrences as an aspect of our universe that is behaves independently of Hashem. But randomness (random (1) Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective) does not exist independent of Hashem’s will. The roll of a die, flip of a coin, state of a quantum particle may be random by our mathematical definitions or personal judgements. That does not mean that the random result happened without Hashem. Randomness, and the existence of random processes is part of Hashem’s creation and exists, as do we all, only by His will. When you pretend that randomness means that there is no God, you must hold that for any process that appears random.

    When a scientist calls a process random, it means that the specific occurrences have no observed pattern or purpose. That is, we cannot predict which events will happen based on a measurable plan or end-goal. That does not, despite what many would believe, say anything about Hashem’s role in this world. If nothing happens without Hashem’s will, then every little random occurrence that has ever occurred withing the evolutionary process to get humans to where we are existed as part of Hashem’s will.

    Just because Hashem knows the future doesn’t mean you don’t have free will. And. just because something is random, doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from Him. Stop limiting Hashem with this duality of God/Randomness.

  5. Sam Broder says:

    The excerpt below is from one Bob Parks, who, I believe, is a physicist at Univ. of Md., and a staunch advocate of evolution as a fact. Note his comment:”The sticker was not factually inaccurate” So even he admits to some shortcomings to his “religion”.

    4. EVOLUTION: THINGS ARE A LITTLE STICKY IN COBB COUNTY, GEORGIA.

    Yesterday, a federal appeals court panel seemed to some observers to be critical of the ruling requiring removal of a sticker from biology texts http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN05/wn011405.html . It read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” The sticker was not factually inaccurate.

    The attorney who argued the case against the stickers at last years trial remarked admitted that, “I’m more worried than I was when I walked in this morning.”

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    I think Seth Gordon reversed cause and effect. The only people Rabbi Shafran accused of having a religion of randomness are those who responded to ID with cynicism and derision rather than rational arguments. The cynicism was, says Rabbi Shafran, motivated by the typical defensiveness of a fundamentalist whose faith is challenged.

    It’s not an unfair argument; more on this later.

  7. Charles B. Hall says:

    I second what Rivka W. and Seth Gordon have pointed out regarding the fact that the evolution of new traits, and even new species, has in fact been observed by humans and that they results were consistent with what evolutionary biology would predict. There are several other points that I would like to address:

    ‘evidence a directed cause rather than the undirected randomness ‘

    My doctorate is in biostatistics, so I’m a bit of an expert on randomness. We scientists have not done a good job in explaining that describing nature through the use of models that include randomness does not preclude the possibility that the underlying process is, in fact, deterministic. To the contrary, we often model processes that we strongly believe are deterministic with stochastic models because they work better at predicting things.

    To cite a simple non-biological example, consider the result from the toss of two dice. While the process is well described as random, it really isn’t in any meaningful sense. If you really knew the initial conditions, the weight of the dice, the initial orientation, the velocity (speed and direction) in which they are tossed, the hardness of the dice and the surface upon which they are tossed, etc., etc., you would be able to perfectly predict the result of any given toss. But that is really hard, so we say instead that the probability of rolling a “7” is 1/6. It works rather well.

    And it works well for many aspects of biology. It is difficult to easily describe how central the concept of evolution is to what we understand about natural processes in biology. In order to sucessfully challenge evolution, it is necessary not only to cite some anecdotes at the margin regarding observations that have not been fully explained, but to re-interpret thousands of scientific journal publications each year. For ID to replace evolution, it has to do at least as good a job at explaining those results. That isn’t likely to happen.

    ‘opposing the presentation of an alternate point of view’

    The problem with this statement is that there are legitimate alternative points of view, and there are points of view that are not legitimate. A point of view that says that the Torah was entirely a human creation is not a legitimate point of view and should not be discussed in an Orthodox yeshiva. A point of view that denies the historical facts of the holocaust is not a legitimate point of view and should not be discussed in a history class anywhere. And a point of view that does not accept the scientific method and the validity of its results should not be discussed in a science class. Intelligent Design is not subject to evidential tests and is not science.

    ‘there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one’s head both the conviction that we are mere evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different’

    This is a hard one, because I and many other frum scientists believe just that, and don’t suffer philosophical angst. Rabbi Shafran is correct in that this *is* a philosophical problem and one that deserves attention. I meditated on this and I found the answer to that problem in Torah, in part inspired by this line in Rabbi Shafran’s essay:

    ‘The two apparently different approaches to the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem may not be two approaches at all.’

    It is a basic principle that the law of the excluded middle does not apply to Torah. “These and these are the words of the Living God.” We hold other positions that seem to be philosophically incompatible, such as the fact mentioned by 1.5 Opinions that HaShem is all-knowing and all-powerful yet we have free will, and the example Rabbi Shafran gives. It is possible to agree that biologically we seem to have evolved from a common ancestor of ourselves and apes, but that spiritually we are completely different from any other of HaShem’s creations.

    And it is our spiritual uniqueness, not our biological uniqueness, that makes us special. Parrots can talk and understand what they say. Apes can communicate in sign language and make tools. Many animals form social units that seem to function as well as some human social units seem to. But those objective characteristics are not what makes us human — and the distinction of being human carries with it certain ethical mandates taught in Judaism as well as in other religious traditions and even secular philosophy. I would not object, and I suspect most scientists would not object, to having this taught even in public schools. I would even argue that given the history of abuse in the name of science (think “social Darwinism”, Nazi medical experiments, the Tuskegee study in the United States) that we should all campaign for such to be added to curricula everywhere. Far better to give students an appreciation of how our much older philosophical and religious traditions should limit what we do than to try to force science, in truth a much newer discipline, to try to do something it can’t — espeicially when the attempt to do so is not scientific.

  8. shmuel says:

    Charles Hall said, “If you really knew the initial conditions, the weight of the dice, the initial orientation, the velocity (speed and direction) in which they are tossed, the hardness of the dice and the surface upon which they are tossed, etc., etc., you would be able to perfectly predict the result of any given toss”
    One of the lessons of quantum physics and Heisenberg’s principle is that not only is the above “really hard” but it’s actually impossible and therefore truly random.

  9. Seth Gordon says:

    The only people Rabbi Shafran accused of having a religion of randomness are those who responded to ID with cynicism and derision rather than rational arguments. The cynicism was, says Rabbi Shafran, motivated by the typical defensiveness of a fundamentalist whose faith is challenged.

    Suppose a Reform rabbi gave a speech in which he argued that same-sex marriage is just as valid in Jewish religious law as a marriage between a man and a woman, and bolstered his argument with copious quotes from the Talmud and medieval rabbis. Some Orthodox rabbis–perhaps Rabbi Menken would be one of them–would respond by taking the time to look up every citation, demonstrate how it was being misinterpreted, and lay out rational arguments for the contrary view. Others would simply roll their eyes and respond with, well, cynicism and derision.

    So, too, with Intelligent Design. As others have pointed out on this forum–and as a Republican-appointed judge decided after a long trial with copious expert testimony from both sides–Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, but a religious doctrine thinly disguised as a scientific theory. If you have questions about the scientific justification for evolution, see the Talk.Origins archive that I linked to above. If you believe that Jews should, as a matter of faith, believe that God did not work through the mechanisms of evolution to create life on earth, that’s your philosophy and I am not qualified to argue against it.

    But to push forth a parody of science as “science”, and then claim that scientists who sneer at the misrepresentation have “the typical defensiveness of a fundamentalist whose faith is challenged”–it’s like the joke about the boy who kills his parents and asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. Or, as Carl Sagan put it: “They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Einstein. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    Seth, you are expressing a grave lack of familiarity with the theory of Intelligent Design — not as promoted by Dover creationists, but the real thing. Sir Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, proposed a theory of Intelligent Design with no reference to religion. Do you also think he was proposing a “religious doctrine thinly disguised as a scientific theory?”

    No one has taken the time to analyze ID and prove rationally that it is not true. Thus by your own statements, the derision is premature.

  11. Seth Gordon says:

    Seth, you are expressing a grave lack of familiarity with the theory of Intelligent Design—not as promoted by Dover creationists, but the real thing.

    The Dover trial had extensive expert testimony from Michael Behe, one of the two names that I have seen most associated with “Intelligent Design” in the news. If that’s not “the real thing”, then the ID theorists who do represent “the real thing” need a bigger PR budget.

    Sir Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, proposed a theory of Intelligent Design with no reference to religion. Do you also think he was proposing a “religious doctrine thinly disguised as a scientific theory?”

    Googling “crick intelligent design” gives me references to “directed panspermia”, a theory propounded by Crick that the first microbes arrived on Earth from space and everything else evolved from there. It also gives me this quote from a 1994 book by Crick: “The age of the earth is now established beyond any reasonable doubt as very great, yet in the United States millions of Fundamentalists still stoutly defend the naive view that it is relatively short, an opinion deduced from reading the Christian Bible too literally. They also usually deny that animals and plants have evolved and changed radically over such long periods, although this is equally well established. This gives one little confidence that what they have to say about the process of natural selection is likely to be unbiased, since their views are predetermined by a slavish adherence to religious dogmas.”

  12. JM says:

    I find it a little bit unbelievable that Rabbi’s posting on this website feel perfectly comfortable challenging Ph.D. scientists posting here. We always demand that there be some respect shown to our Rabbinical leaders who we assume know what they are talking about when they talk about Torah, but there doesn’t seem to be the same deference given to the scientists who post here.

  13. Yaakov Menken says:

    JM, three points to be made in response.

    1) The “deference” to which you refer exists in the realm of the practical, but not in the theoretical. When learning, a student is encouraged to argue with every idea and every concept, rather than allowing a teacher to say “I know better than you and that idea is silly.” It is only in terms of what a person must do that we listen to guidance of those with greater expertise.

    2) Dr. Charles Hall mentions above that he is a biostatistician. Most biologists, including evolutionary biologists, have no special background or expertise in statistics, probability, or randomness. I could detail my junior independent work for you if you really want to know, but I’m not treading on foreign soil.

    [For Dr. Hall’s part, I think he has misunderstood what ID says — it contradicts nothing that we have learned about the relationships between species. It does contradict conclusions such as “vestigial organs” — like the tonsils that doctors recently stopped taking out at the drop of a staph infection, because there’s evidence that they serve a purpose after all.]

    3) Statements like “there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one’s head both the conviction that we are mere evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different” are not statements of biology but of philosophy. I’m not sure I agree with Rabbi Shafran on that one, either — or, only if one takes “mere evolved animals” in its most literal sense.

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